A local councillor is considering a proposal that would allow St. Albertan's, regardless of age, to have access to local transit services at no cost next year.
Coun. Sheena Hughes said she plans to propose a free local transit system during the upcoming 2024 budget deliberations, and that she is expecting the lost revenue to be around $140,000 to $150,000.
“You have to realize that a one per cent tax increase is (the equivalent of) over $1.2 million, almost, $1.3 million,” Hughes said. “So, that would be like a 0.1 per cent tax increase.”
Hughes, through a budget information request, has asked city administration to provide an exact estimate of how much revenue would be lost if local transit services were offered for free, a report for which should be made public before the end of the month.
In the event the estimate is a loss of $150,000 in transit revenue if local services were offered for free next year, Hughes equated the cost to residents to about the same price as one local transit fare, which is currently $3.25.
“For the cost of one trip on the bus, for one person to ride the bus, that would be the cost on your taxes to allow you to actually ride the rest of the year for free.”
Hughes said the idea stemmed from seeing the success of St. Albert's free transit for youth program, which was made permanent in the fall of 2020 after a nearly nine-month pilot.
“It's been a really successful program since it was implemented to allow the youth to go and ride the bus, but the challenge is also that once you turn 18, you have to now start paying for that bus,” Hughes said. “There's a lot of people who are in the 18 to 20 demographic that still don't have a car that could still use this help.”
“I think there's also a lot of advantages if you're a single parent, or a one car household ... and you may not have that income if you're a single parent (or in a) one income household, so it becomes a deterrent for a lot of people to just get out.”
Besides being a helpful affordability measure for St. Albertans, Hughes said she also thought a free local transit system may help quell traffic and parking issues during large community events such as the Farmers' Market.
“I also think about, for example, the Farmers' Market where a lot of people may just take the bus down to the Farmers' Market all the way from home if they didn't have to pay for it on Saturdays,” Hughes said, pointing to how some residents drive from their homes and park at St. Albert Centre before taking advantage of the city's park and ride program for the market.
Similar to the Farmers' Market scenario, Hughes said she also thought local transit fare may be a deterrent for those who drive, given a trip for two adults from a residential neighbourhood to somewhere within the city limits and back home could cost $13.00, which can be thought of as an inconvenient price to pay for those with easy access to a vehicle.
“If we do this you can just alleviate some potential areas of parking problems and those sort of items for people who just are trying to stay within St. Albert and the local traffic fare (may be) too much of a deterrent for them to actually consider changing any of their current behaviours,” Hughes said.
“This would not affect the commuter routes as that's really where the majority of transit revenue comes from, (whereas local services) is really quite a small amount but I think it might actually get more people into the buses.” The Gazette reported earlier this year that St. Albert Transit generated $2.9 million in revenue last year, however that total included both commuter and local services.
Laura Kruse, the director of communications for Public Interest Alberta, and a former organizer for the now-defunct advocacy organization Free Transit Edmonton, told the Gazette that free local transit services could play a big role in enhancing the lives of St. Albertans.
“Public transit is such a critical aspect of how people move around the city and access things like recreation, appointments, getting their groceries, getting to work, getting to fun activities, their friends houses, community events, all those kinds of things, so it's wonderful to see a politician look into expanding that service so that it is accessible to all regardless of their ability to pay,” Kruse said.
“Free transit is just a solution to so many issues,” she said, adding, “It's a part of the solution to climate change, to economic inequality, to racial injustice ... it's a very equalizing program that aims to get people where they need to go.”
In order for Hughes' idea to be implemented, the councillor will need to put forward a motion during 2024 budget deliberations, which the rest of council would then debate and vote on.
City administration's draft 2024 budget is expected to be presented to council at the end of October or early next month.